Truth or Consequences of PTSD

Enduring Peace - Photogravure by Jon Lybrook
Enduring Peace – Photogravure by Jon Lybrook

This weekend we heard about a friend that had been traumatized at seeing the death of a child. The friend whom this had happened to, and his wife had actually been first on the scene. This child died in his arms.

This friend had soon mentally locked into the story about this child dying in his arms, and identified with it so deeply, that he couldn’t escape. It consumed him.  This is a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  It can hit any of us for any random event we are mentally unprepared for dealing with. The friend’s response to the horrible event was to twist every new event and every new story to somehow be about or connected to that event. His own life story had essentially stopped because of the event, in fact.  It stopped because he couldn’t accept the reality of what happened and move on. It hit some core issues with him and his wife both I’m sure, since she was also on the scene and a part of “the story”. Those deep-seated issues having to do with trust certainly come up in PTSD victims.  Hoping the ending of the story is he was able to let go of it on such a personal level, and his strong personal identification as a participant in it. This is the ego at work, stressing out while trying to change the reality of our simple or complex delusions about ourselves and the world as a whole.

While we do not generally inflict trauma on ourselves and can not control that, we can and should try to control how we respond to that trauma as best we can. If we just leave everything up to fate, after all, that would be foolish.  If our minds are not prepared for an event, then they must expand and unwind to embrace the reality as laid before us, without shame or embarrassment, but with compassion and acceptance.  This is the way things are, and we have to accept it. This is also how we learn and grow. Resisting this natural process of mental development results in a feedback loop of minor mind-body pain that gets amplified over time, until the person becomes debilitated and dies from the pain, the neglect, or the morphine. The good news it does not have to be this way!

Vipassana meditation can help with PTSD, the main cause of which is not accepting the reality of what had been experienced. While I am not a mental health professional I have had a personal interest in this subject and have found vipassana meditation to be an effective method to understand the process of how and why we suffer.

We have to accept unpleasant facts so we have a clear basis of reality from which to plan our course to make the reality better – and truly better – not just what we think might be better.  And this is where Vipassana meditation comes in. Vipassana is not a religion, but a meditation technique that was taken from the basic meditation techniques taught by the Buddha himself 2500 years ago.  It’s a pure study of the interworkings of the human mind, and how it interacts with the body. Rooted in science and based on actual results, Vipassana meditation can be the fast track to identifying some of the core issues limiting us as individuals, and providing actionable methods for addressing our limitations super-effectively, while making best use of our native virtues as well!

Interview with S.N. Goenka ENGLISH from Dhamma server Spain on Vimeo.

 

Experiencing Self vs. Remembering Self

Alot of emotional things can come up during meditation, resulting in added physical stress while sitting still.  This is one very effective way to learn about what you feel and how your emotional and rational selves co-exist of course, is to meditate.  Freudian psychology referred to this also in terms of the conflicts arising through battles between the subconscious and the ego.  Conflict in the brain causes physical pain.  Harmonious co-existence of our two selves is the simple result of acceptance – sometimes profound, sometimes, through exhaustion of all other options!

This video I found via the great people over at Brain Pickings, stretched my skull a little (as Alan Watts used to say).  In it, psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes the phenomenon of the two selves, and how our idea of happiness is very different between the two respective experiencing and remembering selves.

My question is how strong is your conviction in general, if you can’t sit by yourself in meditation without moving for an hour, and without generating stress and anxiety that cause physical pain?  What is your remembering self inflicting on your experiencing self, and why?

Pluto Photos Illustrate The Granular Nature of Truth

In 2006, New Horizons Spacecraft left earth in search of better data about the solar system.  This week it achieved a significant milestone in the mission and returned some stunning data about the only planet ever to become publicly demoted from planet to dwarf, after over 75 years on the top charts.

Below are before and after photographs of Pluto from the NPR Website.  The left shows Hubble Space Telescope’s image of the former planet compared with the flyby image returned by the New Horizons spacecraft.

The difference in what is now known about Pluto’s shape and topography visually is nothing compared to the granular geologic and biological data that can be collected by spectroscopy during this flyby.  These photos show that only by going after the truth and finding it for ourselves, first hand, will we see how little we really knew.  And how fuzzy our assumptions are seen in hindsight, and how clear they seemed again here in the present.  To sum it up:

True understanding is subverted the moment we are comfortably satisfied  with our understanding of the truth.

“True understanding is subverted the
moment we are comfortably satisfied
with our understanding of the truth.”

– Jon Lybrook

Reacting and Meditation

“Women can change better’n a man,” Ma said soothingly. “Woman got all her life in her arms. Man got it all in his head.”

“Man, he lives in jerks – baby born an’ a man dies, an’ that’s a jerk – gets a farm and looses his farm, an’ that’s a jerk. Woman, its all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river, it goes right on. Woman looks at it like that.”

the-grapes-of-wrath-18That was Ma Joad from Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.  I’ll never forget the ending of this great John Ford movie with the surviving family members driving off into the richly toned black and white sunrise in their old truck.  Beat up but still running because it had to, I would argue that truck symbolized their lives.

Goenkaji had great advice for we who live in our heads too. He said, in effect:

Whenever negativity arises in the mind, just observe it — recognize the physical sensations associated with the negative emotions, and face them. Accept them for what they are.

Do not focus on the object person or event associated with the negativity, or the negativity will multiply.  Observe the sensation, and let it go.

Mental impurities cause unhappiness. As soon as you start to observe a mental impurity, it begins to lose its strength and slowly withers away. Once all unhappiness is eradicated, all that’s left is happiness.

Paraphrased from the Art of Living, by S.N. Goenka.

Talking to People About Meditation

In describing Vipassana meditation to a number of people this weekend I was met with a common theme.  Most of them said they thought meditation would be boring, and that’s why they weren’t interested in doing it. But when asked about what they thought the benefits would be, they said things like “bliss”, “relaxation”, and “supreme enlightenment!”. While that may be true of some practices, the Vipassana approach taught by S.N. Goenka delivers not just relaxation or bliss, but something much more powerful: simple “happiness” through developing one’s ability to concentrate the mind. 

Sometimes the response to this is “But I’m already happy.” (ergo, I don’t need to learn to meditate). There are of course varying degrees of happiness. Most people have something gnawing at them, even in the most serene environments. That subtle feeling of discontentment that something could be just slightly better, and so they move to change things so it can be, and then again and again until the objective is no longer to be at peace with the place and moment, but to make things better. This discontentment, it is often said by scholars in Buddhism, is what the Buddha really meant when he refers to ‘suffering’. Sure suffering could be the result of a larger physical or emotional problem, but it can also be the result of your tea being not quite hot enough, if the mind allows you that kind of focus. Maintaining charge of one’s mind to not allow unhappiness to enter into the sphere of their mental environment results in pure happiness, by definition. Easier said than done, so that is why we practice meditation.

One person asked me if meditation was like going on a hike where you’d think about things as they came to you and observe the world outside with awareness, as well as the pain growing in your feet and different parts of your body as time passes. After some consideration I answered no, that I didn’t think meditation was like going on a hike because the objectives were different.  People can go on hikes for many different reasons and, like meditation, there are physical and psychological benefits to both.  However meditation in the style I practice has the main objective of mental purification, not being aware of your environment, although that skill may improve through the practice of meditation too. By combing through the physical sensations (pleasant and unpleasant) and learning to accept them in a safe environment of focus, we eventually grow to also accept things pleasant and unpleasant outside the confines our bodies with acceptance. This is how the practice works. It was clear that the person asking the question was not happy that their analogy of hiking and meditation was not embraced.  She really wanted to be told that she was okay without meditation in her life because she liked and benefited from hiking, I suppose.

Likewise some who practice meditation of a different style sometimes grow defensive when I point out the differences between our approaches and the core objectives of Vipassana: To come to terms with one’s personal reality as a path to real happiness. There are no external devices of conscious imaginary visualization to provide temporary emotional happiness in Vipassana. In Vipassana, these things actually work against the objective of observing and accepting reality. It is hard work, but most people want their results to be pleasant and immediate while meditating instead of training to fortify the mind against unhappiness, like one might train the body through yoga or lifting weights against physical inflexibility and weakness.

It’s a tentative balance when talking with others about the practice. No one wants to think their current lifestyle and pursuits are inadequate. The acid test is, can you maintain the balance of your mind and level of happiness during good times and bad with this practice? The truth is paradoxical and is therefore somewhat had to convey in conversation to those who don’t already get it: Only by accepting the pains and inadequacies in our lives and embracing them are we free to be truly happy.

Meditation: There’s not an App for that.

As a web developer I wish writing software were as easy as thinking and making it happen, as with art. The more complex the system, the more one small change has repercussions effecting potentially all aspects of the system.

When you think about how many things have to happen in order to drive yourself to the store and buy a bottle of soda, if you broke down every required action into steps, there are probably 50 or 100 or even 1000 individual steps allowing you to do the “one” task you want to do. In software each of those things has to be written and all possible use case scenarios accounted for and tested so nothing breaks. Yet we naturally just think of any action we perform in working with existing software as one thing.

Software models reality, which in actuality, is way more complex than our amazing brains give credit for, because it can process and make adjust naturally to things at lightning speed. In software every single thing must be written.

Likewise, meditation is a step-by-step process that slows down the mind to focus on each part of the body and analyze it in terms of sensations, but without judgement or attempting to fix it. For me, like most people, this is the hardest aspect of Vipassana meditation.

Aikido Rokyu Testing – Part 2

In part 1 of this article, I wrote a little about where akido and vipassana meditation intersect, but mostly about the mechanics involved in testing for my personal reference. In this installment, I discuss more about how the two practices overlap and enhance one another.

Aikido Flow

Aikido Flow – Lytescape by Jon Lybrook © 1996

Had my rokyu test last night, and all went well.  Collin also tested and did a great job as my uke (attacker). While my technique may not have been perfect, I was focused and the experience of testing brought me to a greater level of commitment having performed acceptably in front of about 30 aikidoists. Looking forward to the feedback from the judges on how I might improve, which is one of the most valuable parts of getting such an evaluation.  I will be eligible for the next rank (gokyu, or 5th kyu) in March.

In my last post I wrote about the difference between meditation and aikido practice in terms of one being solitary and the other interactive. While true that meditation is a solitary pursuit and aikido is mostly done with others, the goal of the Vipassana path I follow is to eventually integrate the vipassana technique of maintaining mental balance (through awareness of feelings and sensations) into everyday life and thus improve our interactions with others all the time. By paying attention to changes in physiology when experiencing mental conflict in meditation – breathing, heart rate, sensations on the skin – we can focus on being aware of that genuine experience in our bodies instead of getting stuck in a loop of “imagined” experiences and our reactions to these imaginings, in order to calm the mind.  I use the word imagined because however bad or good the situation, our memory and impressions, and subsequent reactions to them are often different when we’re feeling strongly about something, than if we had more objectivity. This has been proven time and again when interviewing witnesses from crime scenes and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients — our memory of a situation and its circumstances becomes distorted the more we mentally relive a powerful experience.  In other words, our tendency is to blow things out of proportion and overreact, at least internally if not externally when we’re not focused on the moment.

Similarly aikido, while martial in essence, is meant not just to provide physical skill and balance when in physical conflict with others, but also mental skill and balance internally, where our reactions to conflict originate. Keeping the mind focused and sharp while jolting and exhausting the body through continuous throwing, falling and hitting the mat can prove to be a challenging exercise and quite different from the more subtle focus required during the physical stasis of meditation.

In aikido one of the goals and challenges is to respond to attacks with an appropriate level of response.  The first part of the word Aikido means “match” or “harmony” — according to Miriam-Webster: ai- match, coordinate + ki breath, spirit + art, way. If someone attacks with moderate force, breaking their arm would be an excessive and inappropriate response. Likewise responding weakly would be inappropriate, not to mention ineffective. Aikido practice prepares us for both mildly threatening as well as deadly attacks and helps us to discern the difference and respond appropriately – mentally and physically.

To not respond excessively based on exaggerated impressions, rather than the actual level of force in harmony with the attacker and their attack is a difficult thing to master, and where Vipassana meditation practice can help us to improve aikido.  The mental/physical response is not just a matter of responding to the attack itself in a vacuum, but also has to do with our current, as well as our past reactions to similar situations.  For example, if the attack is coming from a person who has hurt me before, or if the person or style of attack reminds me of being hurt or rendered ineffective in the past, I may have a prejudiced reaction to the attack.  Mental reactions (verbal or physical) will increase or decrease in intensity, sometimes quite inappropriately, based on these imagined conditions rather than the actual conditions.

People come to aikido for different personal reasons. For me at least, aikido practice provides a place where Vipassana practice of maintaining mental focus is able to be challenged, tested and improved upon in a generally safe, physical environment, in addition to being great exercise and a way to meet fascinating people of all ages with mutual goals of self-improvement.

 

 

Making Meditation Easier: Controlling Our Internal Chemistry

I have a little niece who recently had a 4th birthday.  Her little brother got a musical birthday card for his birthday earlier in the year, and she really wanted one too. It’s just a greeting card with a little electronic chip in it that plays and small audio sample repeatedly. My wife remembered this and weeks before her birthday found one.  It loops the whistling chorus of Lovin’ Spoonful’s song What A Day For A Daydream.  We decorated it with pictures and sent it off.  Her birthday came and she had a magnificent party and seemed to forget all about wanting this singing card.  My sister didn’t give it to her on her birthday for some reason.  Then just this week I got a call.  My niece was home sick from daycare and she and my sister found and opened the special musical birthday card.  My sister said my niece got so excited she actually blushed and said in a quiet but excited voice, “I got my own singing card!”  She finally got what she wanted, and the result was a noticeable biological change in her metabolism and skin tone caused by the excitement.

Most of us don't get what we want...except Ralphie.

Most of us don’t get what we want…

Most of us don’t get what we want — certainly not all the time.  When we do, we may enjoy it for a while, but then it’s off to find the next thing that we don’t yet have to give us pleasure, excitement, or just keep the blues and difficulties of life away for a little while longer while we continue to seek more permanent satisfaction.

Gaining true satisfaction with life is something not many of us can claim to have done, and one of the reasons I started meditating.  Learning to meditate properly was one of the most difficult things I’ve encountered in my 45 years on the planet.  Sitting still is easy for the first 10-20 minutes, but after that the body starts building tensions — thinking about all the things to do today..this week…and.next week!  The past, likewise becomes a burden:  All  the things I have said, someone else said, things I could have said, should have done differently, and again to the future…what I’ll do next time!  Worrying about all the time lost.  So much to do to make up for lost time!  Ahhh!  I need to get up and go NOW.

Yet, I am here to sit now…and for the next 43 some odd minutes I have left (I set a timer and never look at the clock so I’m never totally sure.  Are any of us ever sure how much time we have left?).

One great meditator once said the way to handle this paradox while sitting is to say to yourself, “Yes these things may all be very important to me, but right now I am meditating.”  I like that notion and have found it helpful in staying put.

The more time I spend meditating and studying the technique, the more I understand the teachings.  I practice Vipassana Meditation under the tutelage of S.N. Goenka. I would not recommend trying this technique without proper guidance as given in 10-day silent retreats offered by Vipassana Research Institute.  Why?  Because they have a training environment and structured schedule to launch a new meditator into working with the best chance at success for continuing, and gaining the benefits of it.  Most people, beginning meditators especially, get frustrated and stop doing the work without gaining anything after their first attempts at sitting for one hour.  The training costs nothing but your time (and a voluntary donation if you are so inclined after completing the course). No one bugs you afterward or tries to convert you to a religion, or sell you anything.

This is the technique, which in its instructions are simple:

  1. Sit with eyes closed for one hour in the morning and one in the evening.
  2. While sitting, methodically scan the body, head to toe, for physical sensations – heat, cold, tingling, prickling, itchiness, sweat, pressure, pulsation, pain, etc.
  3. Recognize with each sensation you experience that it is changing and impermanent.  It may increase or decrease but will eventually pass away in time, just as it arose if you accept it for what it is and relax.  This is the law of nature.
  4. Stay focused, keep the scanning going, and don’t let the mind wander.

And that’s it in a nutshell!  It’s really all there is to it, though it is far easier said than done, which is why proper training is required.  The benefits are many, including the ability to control stress, anger and anxiety along with minimizing or even curing their related physical maladies: Back pain, fatigue, stomach ulcers, migraines, grinding teeth, and sicknesses resulting from general immune deficiency.

What I’ve found is this:  Step 4 — Not letting the mind wander is not just helpful for meditation, it’s vital.  Thoughts will wander, of course, but it’s critical that we come back from the fantasy of the past and future (which is where the mind naturally goes when not focused on the present) as quickly as possible. Since we’re sitting still and can’t do anything about the past or the future, such mental meanderings while meditating actually punish us by causing added stress, making meditation harder, unpleasant, and keep us from progressing.

What I’ve also learned from listening to discourses by Goenkaji, and continue to understand on a deeper level is this form of insight meditation as taught and practiced by Buddha himself is all about monitoring and controlling our own biochemistry. It is how meditation and biology relate to biofeedback. Biofeedback is the process of gaining greater awareness of physiological functions with the goal of being able to manipulate them at will.

Here’s how it works: Stress, anger, fear, lust and hatred all generate particular biochemicals.  When we think about the external objects associated with these dark emotions, it generates a little of the biochemical and releases it into our bloodstream. The body reacts to the chemical and generates sensation on the body which we then respond to subconsciously, generating a little more of the chemical.  When we stay fixated on outside objects tied to these emotions we become stuck in a feedback loop of craving and generating more and more of this poison chemical that ultimately makes us feel more and more miserable.  Basically we become addicted to these biochemicals which can, in time, destroy both the mind as well as the body.

So why would anyone persist in craving about something they hate?  This is what took me a long time to understand.  We do so not because we want to hate, but because we want resolution, self-serving justice, and to ultimately prevent or instantiate once and for all time the things we most want changed in our lives.  The same is true for things we like and want but can not have as well as those things we despise and want eradicated.  Simply put, we react strongly to things that we identify with strongly, and things we allow to affect us strongly, but can’t control.

Since control over the things we hate (or want) is not usually attainable, at least not permanently, we who are more obsessive and egotistical will fixate on and fantasize about situations we dislike in order to come up with ways to achieve our goals of either attaining or dismantling the objects of our attention. This is true during meditation and while driving down the road, doing dishes, shopping or going about various things in daily life.  It is also where the biochemicals come in to play. The idea of getting what we want, and the end to things we don’t want stimulates this chemical reaction in the body.These chemicals give us initial pleasure in that they are the result of us feeling as if we were attaining what is desired at very that moment.  This is the dark side of fantasy.

As we fantasize about getting what we want, we get a high feeling.  Then as the high fades, we realize we aren’t where we thought we were while fantasizing.  In response to that we feel a low feeling — lower than where we started.  We then seek more of the chemical that made us feel good, so we might fantasize again – easy to do when you can do nothing but sit with eyes closed:  Rewriting past experiences in our minds (to our satisfaction this time!) and getting excited about things we haven’t done yet.  As with most addictions, we require more and more of the chemical each time to reach the desired effect, to maintain the high longer, and put off the inevitable crash.  So we keep going back to the outside object with greater and greater focus and intensity in order to get a bigger payload of the biochemical each time.  Thus the endless cycle of misery continues.

But there is a way out.  Mental discipline prevents us from going there in meditation – with the goal of not going there in day-to-day life. When we monitor ourselves against mental wanderings while meditating we are, in effect, monitoring ourselves in order to prevent this particular kind of biochemical flow from starting.  It starts because of the things that seem important to us are immediately unattainable, so unless we focus on something else personal, like the sensations on our body, as is the prescribed technique, we begin to crave – thus starting the unwanted biochemical feedback cycle again.

Things that seem important are very often things that we don’t already have — no matter how much we may have already.  Rather than taint what we have because of misery for what we want but do not have, our interests are probably better served by staying focused on the present so we can work for what we want. Meditation is, after all, meant to help us to become content in the present so that we can do our best work and make for the best possible future outcomes for ourselves and others.  Otherwise, as the song goes, “you may be daydreaming for a thousand years”…and never get any closer to true happiness and contentment.

Handing Slightly Longer Meditation Sessions

I’ve grown Long time on the mat!accustom to not looking at the time while meditating.  Occasionally the alarm I use either has the sound set to mute or something malfunctions.  During a long, unintentional 90 minute meditation today I was faced again with the fact that that the longer one goes, the more intense and difficult it becomes to stay focused.  Balance and calm eventually gives way to tension, intense irritation, and impulses to stop meditating in favor of whatever compelling thoughts take over.

What I found was that getting through such storms of emotions became easier by changing focus on the body and its sensations to focusing on the breath instead.  Goenkaji mentions this approach to dealing with such distractions in his discourses several times.

Once things calmed down I went back to the body scans.  Much like walking over hot coals, such achievements provide a sense of power and accomplishment in mental discipline that carry into other areas of life.  Unlike walking on hot coals, there’s very little chance of getting hurt!